The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Wagner, Richard

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Edition of 1920. See also Richard Wagner on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

WAGNER, Richard, German composer, creator of the modern music drama: b. Leipzig, 22 May 1813; d. Venice, 13 Feb. 1883. His father, a clerk in the police court, who had been appointed chief of police by Marshal Davoust during the French occupation of Leipzig, died when Richard was only six months old; and the widow, left with seven children, married, nine months later, Ludwig Geyer, a well-known actor, playwright and portrait painter, as well as a tenor. His appearances at the opera in Dresden, where he lived, gave young Richard opportunity to become familiar with the operas then in vogue, his favorite being Weber's ‘Freischutz,’ which made a deep impression on him and determined the direction of his own genius to such a degree that it has been aptly said that it was Weber who wrote the first “Wagner Operas.” When Geyer died, Richard was eight years old and he had not, up to that time, shown any special talent for music; indeed, he played the piano so badly that his teacher told him he would never amount to anything. His poetic talent began to manifest itself when he was 11. Shakespeare became his model and at 16 he had completed a tragedy, a sort of compound of Hamlet and Lear, in which he killed off so many of the characters (42) that most of them had to be brought back as ghosts to prevent the play from coming to an untimely end. It was his desire to set this to music that first decided him, at 16, to become a musician. He took some lessons and after a few preliminary trials wrote a piece concerning which he himself said afterward that ‘Beethoven's ninth symphony appeared like a simple Pleyel sonata by the side of this marvelously complicated overture.’ These youthful extravagances were prophetic of the man who was to revolutionize the opera by his bold defiance of all conventions. In 1830 he entered the University of Leipzig as a student of philology and aesthetics; but music claimed most of his attention, and he wrote, among other things, a symphony which showed such a remarkable mastery of the methods of classical composition as to indicate that he could have become one of the great masters in the concert field had not the inclination of his genius taken him into the operatic domain. He wrote his first opera at Würzburg, where he had secured an engagement as chorus master; it was entitled ‘The Fairies,’ but was not performed till five years after his death at Munich.

His second opera, ‘Das Liebesverbot’ (based on ‘Measure for Measure’), had a deservedly unsuccessful production at Magdeburg. Then he accepted an appointment as conductor at Königsberg, where he married a pretty actress, Minna Planer; and in the following year he moved again, to the Russian town of Riga, where he wrote the libretto and the music of the first two acts of ‘Rienzi.’ This opera was planned on such a big scale that he knew he never could have it properly produced at a provincial theatre, wherefore he boldly resolved to go to the headquarters of spectacular opera — Paris — and try there to rival the popular idol, Meyerbeer, in his own field. With his wife and a huge Newfoundland dog he embarked at Pillau for London: the voyage lasted nearly four weeks; three times the ship was tossed by violent storms and it was during these that Wagner got the realistic “local color” for his ‘Flying Dutchman,’ the story of which was engaging his attention at the time. Paris did not prove hospitable to the German musician. He tried in vain to have one of his operas produced; no one cared for the French songs he wrote and which he was finally glad to sell in Germany at $4 apiece; he could not even get a place as chorus singer in a Boulevard theatre. Luckily he found a music publisher, Schlesinger, who paid him for proof-reading and arranging popular melodies and operatic scores for piano and cornet and other instruments. Wagner also wrote some interesting musical essays and novelties which were printed and paid for and which contain many autobiographic details. He completed ‘Rienzi’ and also wrote the music of the ‘Flying Dutchman’; but finally after nearly three years of starvation and numberless disappointments, left Paris for Dresden, whence he had received a request for his ‘Rienzi.’

With the return to Germany begins the second period in Wagner's life. ‘Rienzi’ was produced at Dresden 20 Oct 1S42 and proved such a brilliant success that there was a demand for his other opera, ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ which was given 2 Jan. 1843, only about 10 weeks after ‘Rienzi.’ This proved to be less of a success; the performance was poor and the audience was puzzled and displeased when in place of the usual airs and processions it found an opera without arias, duos and dances — an opera so new in form and spirit that few could understand it. Only four performances were given. However, ‘Rienzi’ had made Wagner the hero of the day; he was appointed royal conductor and kept that position aoout six years. His next opera, ‘Tannhäuser’ departed more widely still from the accepted models. It was produced 19 Oct. 1845 and, to Wagner's chagrin, seemed to give pleasure only in so far as it resembled the old-fashioned operas. However, he persevered in his path of reform and wrote ‘Lohengrin.’ It was finished in 1848, but he could not even get it accepted for performance. Nor could be get any attention for his plans for reforming the Dresden Opera. He became more and more dissatisfied with his position, and when, in 1849, the Revolution broke out, he foolishly joined the insurgents. The result was that he had to seek safety in flight; his companions were caught and imprisoned, while he succeeded in reaching Weimar where Liszt took care of him and provided him with the means of escape to Switzerland. In that home of political refugees he dwelt during most of the years — more than a decade — that he was exiled from Germany. For six years he composed no more operas, devoting his time to writing essays on musical and dramatic subjects by way of explaining his theories. Little attention was paid to these and he might have starved but for the assistance of Liszt and other friends. All this time the plans for his great ‘Nibelung Tetralogy’ were slowly maturing in his mind. In 1852 the poems were finished and printed and 1 Nov. 1853 he began to write the music for ‘Rheingold’; it was finished the following year and ‘Die Walküre’ was completed by March 1856. In the meantime he had unwisely accepted an offer to conduct a series of Philharmonic concerts in London (1855). Queen Victoria and the public were kind to him, but the press treated him shamefully, his music being described as an “inflated display of noise and extravagance,” as void of melody, etc. He got only $1,000 for four months' work. Returning to Switzerland, he finished ‘Die Walküre’ and began the third opera of the Nibelung Tetralogy, ‘Siegfried.’ When he had got to the middle of the second act, he despaired of ever finishing and producing this great cyclic work, and so abandoned it tor the time being (in June 1857} and began his ‘Tristan und Isolde,’ which, being a separate work, would, he hoped, re-establish his connection with the stage. He completed it in 1859, but seven years elapsed before he succeeded in producing it. In 1860 he gave a series of concerts in Paris; they resulted in a large deficit. In the following year Napoleon ordered a performance of ‘Tannhäuser.’ Wagner was given to understand that he must introduce a ballet in the second act; he refused to do so, and the members of the Jockey Club took their revenge by creating such a disturbance that Wagner declined to allow more than three performances to be given. He thus received only $150 for a year's hard work. Immediately after this disaster he wrote the poem for his only comic or humorous opera, ‘Die Meistersinger,’ of which he had made a sketch as early as 1845.

It was while composing this opera that the most important event of his life happened. He seldom had much money, but wben he had he spent it with artistic lavishness, nor did he hesitate to live beyond his means. The failure, through no fault of his, of a Russian concert project, left him so deeply in debt in Vienna, that, to escape prison, he had to hide in Germany. On 3 May 1864, he was preparing to disappear in the Suabian Alps, there to complete his ‘Meistersinger’ score, when a message arrived from the new king of Bavaria, Ludwig II, who invited him to come to Munich to live there at his expense, to compose operas and produce them. Wagner wept for joy, and promptly proceeded to Munich, where ‘Tristan und Isolde’ was produced on 10 June 1865 and ‘Die Meistersinger’ 21 June 1868. But Wagner's enemies made life so unpleasant for him that he left Munich and took up his abode in a villa on Lake Lucerne, where, after completing his comic opera, he took up ‘Siegfried’ and finished that (1869). The fourth and last opera of the Tetralogy, ‘Götterdammerung,’ was not completed till 1874. His plan of having a special theatre for the Tetralogy built in Munich having failed, notwithstanding the king's friendship, he now chose Baireuth as the best place for such a theatre, in which his novel worlc could be presented in exact accordance with his intentions. To secure the large sum needed, Wagner societies were founded in the cities of Europe and America. In August 1876 three complete perfomances of the Tetralogy were given, before audiences including two emperors, a king and many musical and other celebrities. But the deficit of $37,000 discouraged a repetition of the festival. In 1882, however, after the completion of ‘Parsifal,’ another was held devoted entirely to that work; 20 performances were given in July and August. In the following February, Wagner died at Venice and his remains were taken in a special funeral train to Baireuth. After his death his widow (Cosima, the daughter of Liszt, whom he had married in 1870, four years after the death of his first wife) continued the festivals, which soon became enormously profitable. ‘Parsifal’ remained a Baireuth monopoly until 24 Dec. 1903, when manager Conried produced it at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, the receipts being over $200,000 for 12 performances.

In personal appearance Wagner was barely of medium stature; his head was large in proportion to his body, his forehead massive, his chin prominent, his lips refined, his eyes keen yet kindly in expression. His life was full of disappointments, which left their traces in the lines of his face. He was 44 years old before any of his operas were heard in Vienna, Munich or Stuttgart, and 56 before any of them were sung outside of Germany. This, of course, was largely due to the fact that he refused to make any concessions to popular taste, except in ‘Rienzi.’ The next three operas — ‘Flying Dutchman,’ ‘Tannhäuser,’ and ‘Lohengrin’ — created an entirely new style, and by the time the public had become accustomed to that, he made another equally great step forward in his ‘Tristan,’ ‘Meistersinger,’ ‘Nibelung Tetralogy’ and ‘Parsifal.’ These were derisively referred to as “music of the future,” by way of burlesquing his idea of the “art work of the future.” This idea was that music, sculpture, poetry, painting and architecture had had their day as separate arts, and that the art work of the future was the music-drama, in which all these arts are united inseparably. His wonderful pictorial imagination is best exemplified in ‘Parsifal.’ Being almost as great a poet as he was a composer, he always wrote his own librettos, whose theatric and literary merits place him among the world's greatest playwrights, although they must not be judged apart from the music any more than the music must be judged apart from the plot, the scenery and the action. He preferred mythical, supernatural subjects to the historic. His operas are not, like those of his predecessors, a mere mosaic of unconnected arias, duos, choruses and orchestral interludes, but, especially in those of the last period, every part is connected with every other part by means of leading motives, or characteristic musical phrases which are associated with a particular person, incident or dramatic emotion, and which recur in the music whenever the person or dramatic idea with which they are assodated recurs in the play. This practically gives the faculty of definite speech to the orchestra, the beauty and emotional power of which be further enhanced beyond all precedent by an endless variety of new tone colors and expressive harmonies. He also created an entirely new style of dramatic vocalism, which it took the singers years to master, but with which they are now celebrating their greatest triumphs; to-day Wagner's operas are more popular and profitable than any others. Apart from his operas, the list of Wagner's works includes some mediocre pianoforte pieces, several good songs, and, for orchestra, the ‘Siegfried Idyll,’ and three marches, the ‘Huldigungsmarch,’ the ‘Kaisermarch’ and the 'Philadelphia Centennial.' This last, like his other miscellaneous works, is mediocre. His literary works comprise 10 volumes of dramatic poems and essays on musical and philosophical subjects, some of them wordy and wearisome, others extremely keen and suggestive; English version by Ellis, Vho is also translator of Glasenapp's monumental biognraphy in five or six volumes. The letters of Wagner to Liszt and other friends are extremely valuable; full use is made of them in the most elaborate biography in the English language, by Finck (1893). Other biographic and critical books are by Ashton (1902), Julien (1886), Tappert (1883), Muncker (1891), Liszt, Wolzogen (1883), Pohl, Nohl, Porges, Hueffer, Chamberlain (1896), Nietzsche, Schuré, Kufferath, Oesterlein, Dannreuther (in Grove), Henderson (1901), Krehbiel (1891), Finck (1893), Glasenapp (1876-1911), Koch (1907), Wagner, R., ‘Mein Leben’ (1911); thematic guides by Wolzogen, Kobbé, Heintz, Freda Winworth.

Henry T. Finck,
Musical Critic, New York Evening Post.